Update: This post has been updated for the redesigned New SAT, which premiered in March 2016 and has an entirely new (and entirely optional) essay, by David Recine. Here’s what you need to know!
Only want the facts? Here’s the short answer:
Your New SAT essay will be scored by two professional, human, essay readers. Both essay graders will score each of the three different New SAT essay skills (reading, analysis, and writing) in your essay on a scale of 1 to 4, with the combined score expressed as three digits with slashes between them, each digit representing the score you got on one of the New SAT Essay skills components. (A perfect SAT essay score would be 8/8/8.) If you leave your New SAT essay blank or don’t address the essay topic at all, you will receive a score of zero. Now for more detail…
It’s natural that the New SAT essay has its own grading system, independent of the rest of the test; this portion of the test is an optional add-on, and it’s not multiple-choice or fill-in-grid like the rest of the exam. But it’s not immediately obvious how SAT essay scores fit into the big-picture New SAT 1600 point scale or what it means for you.
How SAT essay scores are calculated
The way your writing is graded is, on the surface, about what you would expect it to be. A human reader (a real live person!) takes a few minutes to read over your essay, then gives it a mark from 0-6. The 0 is the bad one, in case you weren’t sure.
Of course, 0 isn’t a real grade—it’s just what you get if write nothing or an essay on a completely different topic. In other words, memorizing a spectacular essay and then copying it down word for word wouldn’t help you. If you don’t write on the SAT essay prompt you’re given, you get nothing even if the writing is on par with Hemingway.
So if you write a single relevant word, then, you’re in the 1-4 range for each of the three New SAT essay skills—but that’s per grader. You see, SAT essay scores come from two readers. It would be pretty absurd if, by a role of the essay-grader dice, you just got that one crotchety old misanthrope who gave everybody a 1 (not that the College Board really hires guys like that), so there’s a safeguard. Two readers have to give similar scores, and you then get a combined score ranging between 2/2/2 and 8/8/8. If their two scores are more than 1 point separate (e.g. a 2 and a 4), then a third grader comes in to settle the dispute. An essay grader, that is. Not an elementary school student. That third reader, we can imagine, is a seasoned veteran. The score they give you would then be factored in to get your new, final 3-digit score.
Those original 1-4 marks are taken from a holistic view of your essay (check out the College Board’s rubric), at least theoretically. That means that there’s no special way to get an 8 (nor a 2)—everything is taken into account. That being said, some factors are more immediately noticeable than others. So be sure to practice fundamental New Sat Writing techniques that demonstrate your command of reading comprehension, rhetorical analysis, and the conventions of academic writing.
How essay grades affect scaled scores
In the previous version of the SAT, essays were a mandatory part of the exam, and essay scores had a significant impact on the final scaled score. However, in the New SAT, the essay is optional and scored completely separately from the main 1600 point four-section exam. On a New SAT score report, your essay score will appear separately from your scaled composite Reading/Writing/Math score—if you choose to take the essay, that is.
Certainly, if you choose to take the New SAT essay and do poorly on it, it can cast an otherwise good SAT score in a different light. A good 1600-scale score can look less impressive next to an essay score of—say—2/2/2 on the optional essay. Still, an essay score of at least 6/6/6 can complement a composite score on the main test nicely. And an 8/8/8 on an SAT essay is likely to impress university admissions representatives, even at universities that don’t require an SAT essay score.
And essay writing is, in some ways, one of the easiest SAT skills to improve. There’s a process you can follow, a structure of analysis, that will ensure decent scores. It’s not actually all that simple to go from a score of 2 to a score of 8 in all three categories, but with practice it’s definitely possible for a student to reach a score of 6 or higher in Reading, Analysis, and Writing. If writing a weak spot of yours, studying for the New SAT essay is still a potentially great opportunity to boost the value of your score report. Taking this optional component of the test is always worth considering.